When I was a kid, I asked my mom if god was real. She told me not to take the bible too literally. That was the extent of my mom’s teachings regarding religion. I think it was good advice. My family attended a Lutheran church until I was 10. We were asked not to return after my brother, Steve, swallowed the Sunday School goldfish on a dare. There were several similar antics that led up to this dismissal. After that, we didn’t go to church anymore.
I thought the entire episode was hilarious, and am guilty of being extremely pleased when Steve met the dare without hesitation. He was two years older than me, and for the first 15 years of my life, I thought he was the coolest person on the planet. I went along with his schemes, even though they usually ended with a spanking. He was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which meant he had no ability to foresee the consequences of his actions. I still can’t believe some of the things we did as kids.
In our neighborhood, there was only one rule. You all play together, or you don’t play at all. In hindsight, I’m thankful for that rule. I know now that I drove the neighbor kids nuts with my weirdness. Playing barbies was a big thing, and there were so many accessories that you could add. While my little sister, Heather, play acted out stories about being married and having babies, I would sort their stuff. I loved to arrange their shoes and clothing. I would align them and have a fit if anyone moved something once I placed it neatly.
That’s a neighbor girl, Greta, me, Steve, and a neighbor boy in the photo. My mom is peeking out the door. This is before my parents remodeled our house. I remember the shoes I’m wearing. When I outgrew them and had to get new ones, I had a meltdown at the shoe store. I still dream about that sometimes. It really shook me up. I called them “my buckle shoes”. I eventually learned how to avoid becoming attached to shoes.
I need to scan some photos of Heather. She was so cute. She died in 2005 from bilateral pulmonary emboli. She was coming to visit me the next day, which would have been her birthday. It was shocking, and I found out from her best friend over the phone. When Steve had his last open heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic in 2001, he never regained consciousness. I found out from his fiance over the phone. When my mom died in 2001, after hospice care gave her a lethal dose of morphine to relieve her pain from terminal cancer, my sister, Gayle, called me on the phone and told me.
I hate the telephone. I don’t care that it’s an unreasonable, displaced response to my losses. Hate it. My dad also died in 2005, but I found out in person from his widow. Losing so much of my family in such a short span of time took a heavy toll on me. It was a strange toll, though. When Steve died, it leveled me. I fell apart immediately and wept for what seemed like a year. He was my best friend throughout my entire life up to that point. He stood up for me when kids called me a nigger. He was my partner in crime. He used to make me laugh so hard I’d throw up. He was my protector, and my anchor to this world.
When my mom died, she’d been sick for over a year. When she was first diagnosed with colon cancer, she told me, and then told me not to tell anyone else. I kept the secret for a year while driving her to her chemo appointments. I would take her home and do her laundry and clean her house. It was a secret that weighed heavily on me. After she had surgery, I was beside her in recovery, and the doctor told me “I can’t cure her”. I couldn’t process those words. I seriously wanted to fight him.
He wanted to try more chemo, but my mom refused. She told her siblings, and mine after that. They all came and stayed until she passed. The last time I saw her, she grabbed my arm and told me it hurt so much. That was it for me. I wanted hospice to deal with her pain no matter what. My oldest sister, Gayle, wasn’t ready. I remember wanting to fight her too. It was so hard to reason out that she didn’t get to spend the time with her that I had. That she was my mom’s first born, and knew her way longer than I’d even been alive.
I did understand this, but it didn’t matter to me as much as I needed my mom not to hurt anymore. I screamed at them to give her the morphine. Then I left and never went back. I couldn’t stand to be around anyone who would allow her to suffer a moment longer. Gayle called me later that day to tell me she’d passed. I was standing outside in the rain, looking at a butterfly, wondering what it was doing out in the rain. A part of me deep inside knew my mom was gone. I can’t explain how. She was my adopted mom. There was no blood relation between us. I just knew.
I didn’t cry. I just went on existing, even though I couldn’t fathom doing so without a mom. There were many times that something would happen, and I’d want to talk to my mom about it after she was gone. She was always the person who knew what was right. We had some intense moments between us that I have never shared with anyone. She treated me differently than my other siblings. More like I was an adult, now that I look back. She would tell me what she was thinking, even if it wasn’t something you should ever share with a child.
Sometimes I think it was because I was so introverted that she would forget that I could comprehend what she was saying. Some of the things she told me still haunt me. Sometimes I’m angry that she told me things that forced me to see her not just as my mom, but as a woman with way too many people depending on her at all times. The responsibility she carried was immense, and even today is awe inspiring. Most people would cringe at being a single parent with six teenagers at the same time. Add six severely disabled foster children who often couldn’t even roll over without assistance, and you start to see what I mean.
I always helped my mom as much as I could. She never forced us to help. It was very clear to us that it was voluntary. Of all my siblings, only me, Kevin, and Greta chose to help. For me, it was a huge privilege to be trusted to hold one of the foster babies. I spent a great deal of time doing slapstick to entertain them. I would be so delighted when I could get them to laugh. Especially when my mom told me that the child had only a brain stem, or was blind or deaf.
Some of the foster kids were children of Vietnam veterans who were exposed to agent orange. My mom always told me what was wrong, and why if she knew. I remember all of them. I loved them. When my mom brought home a little girl who was blind, deaf, and had severe facial deformities surrounding a cleft palette, my brothers and sisters were nervous. I remember looking at her very closely, and realizing it was nowhere near as horrific as I had anticipated.
She was without a doubt the most affectionate of all the foster kids my mom cared for. Her eyes never opened and were sealed with skin, but her right eye had a tiny slit where you could just make out that she had deep blue eyes. She had bright red hair, and the typical soft, sweet smelling skin of an infant. My mom told me that she was mentally retarded, but I think that was a misdiagnosis. When I played with her, she responded like any other baby. She loved to touch my afro, and could identify me by it.
When I picked her up, she would wrap her arms around me and pat me on the back. She was blind and deaf, but she was bright and loving. It was easy to get her to giggle. I remember being so eager to get home to play with her after school. I got in my first fist fight with a neighbor boy because he called her ugly. I think that was the most offensive thing I’d ever encountered at that point.
I run into a few of the kids who fostered with us now as adults. The native american man who lived with us until he was 10. He has cerebral palsy. He plays drums in a heavy metal band now, despite being wheelchair bound. A native american woman who used to babysit me when I was little, who is mildly retarded. She always gives me a big hug when I see her. She’s married now.
Many of them died since then. Some died in our home. I wish I didn’t remember that part. But many of them lived a lot longer than predicted, which was always a victory to my mom. I think my unique childhood played a big factor in who I am today.
I know there is always more to people than what my eyes show me. I automatically have a deep respect for mothers. Unless they’re insane and hurt kids, of course. I’m an atheist, but don’t disrespect the beliefs of others. I don’t feel anxious around children, but do around adults I don’t know well. Everybody dies, and it hurts. Life goes on, even if you don’t want it to. If and when your mom dies, you have to take what she showed you, and use it to be your own mother. Everyone needs a mother, even if you have to be your own.